March 2020
The lively letters of Dimitri Tiomkin and Lowell Thomas, Part 1

by Warren M. Sherk

The worlds of Dimitri Tiomkin and Lowell Thomas converged through the making of the 1957 Cinerama documentary Search for Paradise, produced by Thomas and scored by Tiomkin. After the film’s release, a lively procession of letters, telegrams, and cards ensued, often filled with news, plans, and proposed projects shared between the film composer and world explorer.

Sixty-five years ago, on March 30, 1955, Tiomkin’s acceptance speech at the Academy Awards ceremony brought the composer instant fame through the emerging medium of television. The closing chapter of his 1959 autobiography opens with, “Now I must tell you how I became ‘famous.’” 

Read: 60th anniversary of Tiomkin’s famous Academy Awards acceptance speech, March 30, 2015

Thomas, on the other hand, is known for his long-running nightly radio broadcast; voicing Movietone News; authoring dozens of books, including a notable one on Lawrence of Arabia; and for introducing, with Merian C. Cooper, the widescreen marvel of Cinerama to moviegoers.

Dimitri Tiomkin and Lowell Thomas

From his home in Los Angeles, with the aid of a transistor radio, Tiomkin faithfully listened to the daily Lowell Thomas radio broadcasts. The composer gained insider status with Thomas’s personal assistant, Mary Davis, witness this 1957 telegram that states, “THE FRENCH GENTLEMAN IS AWAY ON VACATION BUT THE GOVERNOR WILL BE HAPPY TO SEE YOU AT TEN ON AUGUST 29.”

When Tiomkin walks away with an Academy Award® statuette for the music score for The Old Man and the Sea, his fourth Oscar®, Thomas sends the following congratulatory letter.

Thomas thanks Tiomkin “for the salute you gave us in the book,” in a handwritten letter he sends from Florida during a family Christmas get-together at the Jupiter Island Club in 1959. “The book” refers to Please Don’t Hate Me, which Variety described as “the buoyant, wise and sometimes witty life story of Tiomkin.” Prosper Buranelli, a longtime aide-de-camp to Thomas, co-wrote it. In the book, Tiomkin recalls meeting Lowell, and his wife, Frances, and spending a weekend at their home in Duchess County, in upstate New York, where he is reluctant to say anything in front of “the paragon of correct speech.”

Read: Hollywood Harmonies by Dimitri Tiomkin and Prosper Buranelli

On the final day of 1959, Mary Davis compiles, with an assist from Buranelli, a guest list for a planned Please Don’t Hate Me book launch party in New York and sends it to a local public relations firm. The publisher, Doubleday, would distribute thousands of lapel pins imprinted with the book’s title. 

On January 3, 1960, Tiomkin jets cross country to New York on American Airlines. The flight merits a mention on Lowell Thomas’s radio broadcast the following day.

As a veteran traveler and explorer, Thomas wrote books centered around Afghanistan, Canada, India, Japan, Mexico, Spain, and other foreign locales and his radio program exploited both his travels and others. Thomas served variously as honorary president and general chairman of The Explorers Club and World Center for Exploration Fund.

Serge Korff, the organization’s past president wrote, “Few things have contributed more to the advancement of civilization and to the wealth and prestige of nations than the achievements of explorers, whose efforts through the ages have been dedicated to breaking down the barriers of the unknown.”

“New Era of Exploration,” The Explorers Club, New York, undated booklet

Today, we take world travel for granted; however, let’s not forget that in the middle of the 20th Century, as international air travel was becoming more commonplace, the Explorers Club of New York, founded in 1904, was still a leading advocate for world exploration. 

In addition to publicizing his Doubleday book, Tiomkin would host a party at the Drake Hotel after attending a New York screening of Rhapsody of Steel, the animated U.S. Steel industrial film in which the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performs his music score. Thomas calls the picture “magnificent” and writes he “liked every moment” of the score.

By summer, a new project is on the horizon. “When do we start on the Lloyd Douglas epic?!” asks Thomas.

Tiomkin and writer-producer Eugene Solow had acquired the rights to Lloyd C. Douglas’s 1937 novel Home for Christmas with hopes to turn it into a musical spectacular for television. Prosper Buranelli is to write the adaptation, Lowell Thomas is to star and narrate, and John Wayne, Laurence Olivier, and Pat Boone are all mentioned at one time or another as possible headliners.

Read: Holiday Music by Dimitri Tiomkin [for more on Home for Christmas]

Then Prosper Buranelli dies unexpectedly in the summer of 1960. Albertina Tiomkin writes to Mary Davis thanking her for phoning the news which was sent via letter to Tiomkin in London.

Tiomkin writes of the struggle to find a sponsor for Home for Christmas.

As late as September 1964, Tiomkin is still discussing plans for the television musical with producer Jim Morgan, but the proposed project never becomes a reality.

Mary Davis sets up a meeting in New York to discuss “the Benjamin Franklin project.” By late fall, in November 1960, syndicated columnist Dorothy Manners reports that Tiomkin and Thomas would co-produce a musical drama based on the life of the Benjamin Franklin, staged first on Broadway, followed by a filmed version in Hollywood.

Tiomkin requests and receives an explanation from Thomas detailing his involvement with Cinerama, that includes the statement, “Cinerama has proved the biggest boon to Motion Pictures since the advent of sound and color.”

Although Lowell Thomas works out of Rockefeller Center and from his Hammersley Hill estate in Pawling, New York, he travels incessantly. The following letter documents his jet setting lifestyle: he appears at a rodeo and parade in Colorado, makes a radio broadcast followed by a speech at American Motors in Los Angeles, and ends up in Northern California for much-needed R&R.

“…again I must travel but not for such excitement and great adventure as you are usually doing,” writes Tiomkin in response to a letter from Thomas that asks how to pronounce the name of the Russian ballet impresario Diaghilev. The Benjamin Franklin project rates a mention, now for the first time in connection with Cinerama.

“Here I am heading for the Antarctic,” writes Thomas in the fall of 1963. “Wish you were going along! What music you could compose after seeing the spectacular sights that are all around you, when you get to that White Continent! It really isn’t white at all. The sky is full of more color than anywhere in the world.”

Thomas returns from the Antarctic, via Australia, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Russia, and all that travel lands him in the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. The banquet anecdote that follows in a personal letter is in relation to a testimonial dinner held for journalist George F. Pierrot, host of a television adventure program, World Adventure Series, that aired from 1948 to 1978 in the car capital of America.

Upon Thomas’s release from the hospital, well-wishers include General Jimmy Doolittle, who proffers this advice to the recovering traveler, “Don’t give up your jet speed, Lowell, just turn off your after-burner!”

Continue reading, Part 2.

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